NCC Blunders

Daly Building

Daly site saga drones on and on

The Ottawa Citizen -- Final
City Monday October 25, 2003

Daly site saga drones on and on: NCC keeps watch on project minutiae
Randall Denley

Nothing comes easy for the National Capital Commission when it involves the long-running saga of the Daly site. When the NCC signed a deal with Claridge Corporation to build condo apartments and ground-floor shops, one would have thought that the matter had come to a final, if unimaginative, conclusion.

Although the NCC is normally obsessed with design details, someone at the NCC apparently forgot to specify that the building had to be built of real stone, like the nearby Chateau Laurier and Connaught Building. That turned out to be a $1.2- million mistake.

Claridge wanted to use manmade stone, but the people on the NCC's design advisory committee were concerned that the new building would look "fake" and age badly. What's more, the way Claridge planned to lay the fake stone would make it look like "concrete blocks."

Aghast at this design horror, the NCC agreed to pick up most of the cost of the real stone. It reduced Claridge's rent for its 66- year site lease by 20 per cent, chopping the amount it will receive to only $4.8 million.

Documents obtained by researcher Ken Rubin under the Access to Information Act reveal that Claridge also tried to sweeten the deal for itself by extending the lease on the property to 99 years. Claridge also tried to tie its rent to condo sales and asked for a two- year rent holiday. At least the NCC had thought to spell those details out in the legal agreement, and didn't have to give in.

Too bad about missing the big one on the stone, but the NCC has found no other detail of the building too small to examine. Its design advisory committee didn't like the way the windows were placed and was particularly upset about the mullions. The building lighting, main staircase and outside plaza details needed improvement.

The NCC wasn't sold on the roof garden, but a shade study indicates that the plants will live. The use of water features on the roof was "too fussy." In other planting issues, the overall lushness was "admirable," but the Norway maple is "not considered a suitable street tree." Surely everyone knows that. What was Claridge thinking?

The NCC continues to remain sensitive to the problem of what will go into the two ground floors of the condo building. Contractually, finding tenants is Claridge's responsibility, but it's no doubt somewhat embarrassing to see a string of attempts to develop the site end up with nothing more than a condo building. The saving grace is to be the exciting ground floor uses, which will draw people to the site.

With that in mind, the NCC board granted chairman Marcel Beaudry up to $1.5 million to encourage a proposal by the Canadian Geographic people, who wanted to build an interpretive centre on the second floor. In exchange for spending the public's money on the geographic centre, the NCC would get some mention in the group's magazine, and feature play for Gatineau Park, an NCC spokesman said.

The centre was intended to "bring Canada in all of its magnificence to the nation's capital," says John Thomson, CEO of Canadian Geographic.

There would be presentations about Canada's human and physical geography, to show visitors the scope of the country.

It actually sounds like a good idea, although one would need to know a lot more about it before investing public money. Unless you are on the NCC board, of course, then you'd throw $1.5 million at the concept.

Despite the offer of free government money, the geographic people and the developer couldn't work out a deal.

Instead, Claridge continues to seek six or seven retail tenants for the building. Two have already been signed, but it's premature to say who they are, says Neil Malhotra of Claridge.

The NCC must be praying that the eventual tenants are something more than a pita shop or a pizza franchise. How about an aquarium shop? People like to come in to look at the guppies, and it creates a thematic echo of the famous aquarium originally planned for the site.

After all the fussing about public uses for the plaza in front of the building, it turns out that Claridge owns it and any programming will be up to them. The NCC hopes it can put up an ice sculpture during Winterlude or maybe have a lesser Canada Day activity there.

In the end, the new jewel of downtown will be another condo building with retail on the ground floor. The public will be able to admire the stone it has invested in, and think about all the rent the project is generating for taxpayers. At the discounted value, that amounts to a stunning $73,000 a year. Units in the building sell for $400,000 and up.

It must be fun doing business with government.

(Copyright The Ottawa Citizen 2003)